Photo by Rachel Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Livan Hernandez has shown enough this spring to earn a rotation spot.
The guy was laughing through the whole exchange, so I don't think he was serious about the offer. But he was serious about his age. He also believes he can pitch in the major leagues for quite a bit longer.
"A lot of years," he said. "Five more? I feel good. Jamie Moyer's 46. I'm 35 now."
If Hernandez can keep pitching the way he did tonight -- holding the Yankees' "A" lineup to one run and three hits in five innings -- he'll remain a valuable, major-league hurler for years to come. Sure, he's going to have rough nights along the way, usually once every five starts or so. But the other four times out, he's going to give his team a chance to win, a fact he's proven time and again throughout a career that began in earnest in 1997 with the Marlins.
"When you put him out there, you put him out there with confidence," manager Jim Riggleman said. "You don't put him out there thinking he's going to break down. Some guys, maximum-effort guys, you worry that they're going to hurt themselves. But that's really not the thought process with Livan."
Hernandez takes a lot of abuse, about his weight, about his lack of velocity, about his age. But let's get one thing straight: The guy is a fantastic athlete. Not just a pitcher. An athlete. He's been voted one of baseball's best golfers. He grew up in Cuba as a top soccer player. And over the winter, he picked up another sport: racquetball.
Encouraged by a friend in Miami to take up the sport, Hernandez found himself almost every morning this winter at a local fitness center playing against a bunch of regular Joes who have idolized the pitcher since he first arrived from Cuba 13 years ago.
"I do it to work out," he said. "It's good for the cardio. I started liking it and playing with the guys a lot."
Here's the kicker: Hernandez didn't play against contemporaries. He played against 60-year-olds. Good 60-year-olds.
"One guy there beat me like 11 times," he said. "I never beat him. He's good."
OK, so it's a bit of an unconventional method for preparing to pitch in the major leagues. But Livan Hernandez has always been an unconventional guy, so really, should we be surprised?
We also shouldn't be surprised that he's pitched well this spring. His body is healthy after a couple of injury-plagued seasons, he's throwing with more velocity (he hit 86 mph several times tonight) and he's still got more stamina than anyone in the game. You know how many pitches Hernandez threw in the bullpen warming up before tonight's game? Eighty-five. Then he went out and threw 74 in the game. And if Riggleman had let him go the distance, he would have.
"I feel strong," he said. "Very good."
The conventional wisdom when the Nationals signed Hernandez to a minor-league contract after camp opened was that he was merely an insurance policy in case some of the organization's younger pitchers weren't ready for prime time. But it's become obvious that's not the case. By the time the Nats decide to finalize their rotation -- perhaps by the end of the weekend -- it's a safe bet Hernandez will be in the mix. Not because other guys failed. But because he earned it.
"He can win it on his own merits," general manager Mike Rizzo said before tonight's game. "He's a proven 200-inning guy. We all know what he brings to the table. He's an innings-eater. He had a lot of quality starts for us at the end of last season. And he's a fine first-half pitcher."
That last statement is a key point. The Nats right now need a quality starter for the season's first couple of months, before Stephen Strasburg and Chien-Ming Wang arrive. Hernandez fits that bill, the perfect place-holder.
If he's pitching lights-out at that point? They'll find a way to keep him (or find another team interested in his services). Who wouldn't want a reliable, 35-year-old right-hander who will give you a guaranteed 200 innings every season and more often than not give your team a chance to win?
And unless you can prove otherwise (and make $1 million in the process), yes, he really is 35.